In his career that spanned little more than a dozen years, Rembrandt Bugatti emerged as a singular figure whose distinct, powerfully modern vision bridged traditional sculptural and animalier devices with innovative methodologies. Bugatti was unique among modernist sculptors in his focus on animal imagery, which was central to his work. As explicated by Edward Horswell in his monograph on the artist, Bugatti, like the great painters of animals George Stubbs and Eugène Delacroix, "would bring to this tradition his own vision, empathy with animals and truth to observation. He would surpass the genre of 'animal art' and resist all definition as an artist, other than as one who forged his own vision and style. He used animal subjects at once for their own sake and as vehicles for the expression of emotion and the celebration of aesthetic form. He remained aloof from both the avant-garde and the conservative trends of his time. The distinctive, deeply rewarding, sometimes disturbing oeuvre that he created remains unique in art history” (E. Horswell, op. cit., p. 13). With his progressive stylization that balances abstraction and figuration in a novel way, Bugatti’s innate talents are displayed in Éléphant au repos.
Bugatti was born into a family with a strong tradition in the arts. His father, Carlo Bugatti, was a fin de siècle master known for his exotic and fanciful furniture, metalwork and musical instruments designed in Italy. His elder brother, Ettore, an engineering genius, who became famous for the mechanically advanced and eternally stylish Bugatti cars, had been the son chosen to follow in his father's artistic footsteps, but after Ettore exhibited an early predilection for engines and cycles, he relinquished his place to his younger brother, Rembrandt. By the age of nineteen Rembrandt was already an acclaimed sculptor having been selected to exhibit at the 1903 Venice Biennale. His training was provided by both his father, Carlo and his uncle, Giovanni Segantini, a leader of the Lombard Divisionists. When Carlo moved the family from their native Milan to Paris in 1904, Rembrandt became immersed in the booming center of commerce and culture of the Parisian belle époque. While the art world's epicenter was a major draw to the burgeoning young sculptor, Paris also contained one of the greatest zoological gardens in Europe: the Jardin des Plantes.
For the first time in his young life Rembrandt was able to contemplate exotic animals. His encounter with the menageries of large cats, elephants, hippopotami and other African mammals, zebras, various equines, unusual birds, a host of cervines and the towering giraffes revolutionized his artistic vision. The wide range of animal subjects provided him with a multitude of shapes, structures and surface textures with which to develop his unique visual language and virtuoso handling of the sculpted medium. From 1906 he began to spend more time in Antwerp, which boasted a zoological garden to rival Paris. For the next decade Bugatti would live among the animals, both in Paris and Antwerp, observing them at length, studying their morphologies, their attitudes, their behavioral nuances, their tones and resonance with his artistic malleability. Bugatti’s sculpture followed on in a journalistic vein, influenced by his dialogues with the animals, capturing what became a unique breed of portraiture. From the start the sculptor chose a free style of modeling in a typical Italian clay, plastiline, beginning without a reference point, measurements or preparatory sketches. The artist's meticulous attention to the nuances of musculature and movement, as well as his infinitely subtler references to the emotion and personality of his subject betrays his respect and awe for the beasts immortalized in his art.
This cast of Éléphant au repos was once in the collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany, whose famed stained glass windows and Art Nouveau decorative art designs sets him apart as one of the most famed artisans of the twentieth century. Tiffany was an avid collector of Bugatti's work, acquiring his own menagerie of bronzes by the artist.
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